Forrest Gander

2019 Pulitzer Prize

Nymph Stick Insect: Observations on Poetry, Science and Creation

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With CD Wright, I co-edit a literary book press, Lost Roads Publishers. Lost Roads, because the map, as poet Jack Spicer reminds us, is not the territory. Like an anthropologist, an editor might look for the missing link, the lost species, to understand the picture, which is a picture in time. I am interested in evolution and in the proliferation of poetries. I know that only the collective assemblage of fossils, of enunciations, can establish the character of a system or an activity. We readily find Derek Walcott's poetry, but when we discover the apposing poetics of fellow islanders Kamau Brathwaite and Shake Keane, our scope widens and the meanings of Walcott's work change too. Poetry doesn't compete, Louis Zukofsky asserted; it is added to like science.

Like species, poems are not invented, but develop out of a kind of discourse, each poet tensed against another's poetics, in conversation, like casts of wormtrails in a sandstone. Our mineral attention can fill in the imprint, memorializing it. But each discovery we make only alludes to the stunning diversity, the breadth of the unrecorded, the unchampioned. When are your poetics, your politics, not implicated in another's?
History reminds us that any scientific truth is a construct and a contract with its time.

At the time when Aristotle and Theophrastus were starting a university in Greece, it was commonly assumed that stones like limonite nodules-which often had detached cores rattling around inside them-were pregnant. In one of the first treatises on the science of geology, Theophrastus asserted that lyngurium, what we now call tourmaline, a gem carved by ancient Greek jewelers into signets, is a precipitate of lynx urine. A wild lynx, in fact, produced better stones than a tame one, he had heard. Nevertheless, Theophrastus commented, only experienced searchers seemed to find lyngurium. Why? Because after a lynx passes its urine, it conceals it, scraping dirt over the liquid. Only when it is buried in this way does it begin to harden into stone.

But Theophrastus's conjecture-that animals might generate or harbor stones-is not so farfetched. Contemporary scientists tell us that lodged within the bodies of various organisms, from homing pigeons to whales, a mineral of iron and oxygen, magnetite, serves as a kind of internal compass, helping them to sense the magnetic field of the earth and so to navigate. It is said that a crayfish requires a grain of sand lodged in its "ear" before it can balance underwater. Chickens, of course, swallow pebbles for digestion. And mammals disgorge hairballs that can be mineral-hard. In fact, one impressive bezoar-stone, a fist-sized fossil hairball, dominates the living room table of poet Clayton Eshleman.

In the thirteenth century, Albertus Magnus detailed the methods for softening gems with goat's blood, urine, and milk. To temper steel, he recommended that the metal be heated white hot and plunged repeatedly into a liquid rendered from radish juice and fluid from crushed earthworms.
With Socrates' assurance guiding his sight, Da Vinci put aside his dissecting knife and noted, wrongly, that a man's liver has five lobes.
What Theophrastus, Albertus Magnus, and Da Vinci saw corroborated what they thought they would see according to the prevalent assumptions of their times.

Neither good poetry nor good science corroborates the assumption of presumed values.

Because habits of thought often determine presumptions, it can be worthwhile to keep a watch out every which way for the real thing. Hypertextual poems, poetry slams, computer generated poems, translations: energy constantly flows into new forms.

If you want to find the second hottest body in the solar system, don't assume it will be found next to the hottest, the sun. Io, one of Jupiter's moons, kneaded between the gravitational forces of Jupiter and Europa into an ultramafic magma the consistency of olive oil, spews a lava as hot as 3,100 degrees.

How readily reality adapts to the imagination! Physicist Richard Feynman, known especially for his work with uncertainty, suggested that antiparticles might be ordinary particles traveling backward in time. His insight was elicited not by daunting mathematics but by his curiously simple-looking arrow diagrams, which suddenly made the idea seem plausible.

The diagrams themselves conceived an intuition, the scribble suggests a word, one word leads to another. Sometimes an organ precedes its function. A structure arises, but becomes useful only after its development. Evolutionary theorists call this exaptation . Our brains may have developed this way. The human is the animal who lays-in meaning. The poem is a structure in which meanings resonate.

There is another world , the poet Paul Eluard famously wrote, but it is inside this one . Quite literally. Certain bacteria live hundreds of meters within the earth's crust, taking nourishment from dissolved gases and minerals that form through the reaction of groundwater and rock. These bacteria, chemolithotrophs, have no need for solar energy. Some scientists estimate that the underground biomass, the world inside this one, might be more than double the living mass at the surface of our planet.

Perhaps we can understand now what the 19th century German naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt meant when he spoke of "the all-animatedness of the earth."

In his own time, Giovanni Battista Vico argued against clear, distinct, Cartesian ideas, emphasizing instead practical wisdom and ingenium, the power of connecting separate and diverse elements. It is his path that interests me.

Exhausted after searching for traces of hominids in Northern Tanzania, Leakey's crew began clowning around, throwing elephant dung at each other. Ducking, one young man's face brushed ground that had been covered-three and a half million years before-with a carbonite-rich volcanic ash. Rains had turned the ash into cement. There, just under his nose, he discovered the most significant Paleolithic path, those Laetoli footprints which show that early hominids were fully bipedal long before they developed tool-making capabilities or an expanded brain. Twenty seven meters of tracks left by two males, a female, and a hipparion. Poet Gary Snyder urges us to find our own way, off the road, on the path.

Wrote Wittgenstein, "We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have not been touched at all."

At one time, scientific method meant that we chopped something apart and put it back together; we made a machine. That method has endured as a scientific model, and a very successful one, for it predicts that when we do something, we will get certain results. But such methodology is not a universal, embracing all human experience. If we approach with a different model, we will ask different questions.

Is it Whitman who tells us that in the beauty of poems we will find "the tuft and final applause of science"? Metaphor argues against logic.
The forest , say the Pygmies, gives us everything we need-food, clothing, shelter, warmth… and affection .

In order to more fully understand death, a 19th century physician named Cabinas applied himself scientifically. Over several years, he recorded his detailed studies of the movements of decapitated bodies just after execution. What do you think he might have learned?

Until three hundred million years ago, fish were strictly bottom feeders within the water column. Insect wings, like those of the green nymph stick insect pinned to the wall above my desk, evolved from the moveable, articulated gill plates of ancient, aquatic insects escaping those fish. Writing is like evolution in that poems are not invented so much as they develop in the act of writing. Robert Creeley: I see as I write.

And evolution is contingent in nature. We are here by chance. John Ashbery: It could always have been written differently . Or, as the poet Basil Bunting put it succinctly: Man is not end product, maggot asserts .

We must force ourselves open to discoveries across the grain, contrary to what we "know."

In this, we may be led best by silence, an almost religious gesture of openness.

It is said that the powers of a Noh actor can be assessed simply on the basis of his kamae, an immobile position giving the impression of unshakeable balance and intense presence. His muscles are not tight, but neither are they relaxed. Consciousness is focused on all parts of the body simultaneously. Kamae is a posture open to all eventualities, virtual movement.

In the Noh play
Sekedira Komachi, reputed to be the most difficult of all to perform, the shite or main actor must sit completely motionless, masked, at the front of the stage for an hour and a half, expressing corporeal intensity by his very restraint of movement.

Art is not the waging of taste only nor the exercise of argument, but like love the experience of vision, the revelation of hiddenness.
Perhaps eros is the fundamental condition of that expansion of meaning necessary to poetry, and of cognition itself. The father of western logic, Socrates, claimed that he had only one real talent: to recognize at once the lover and the beloved.

In those very years when Socrates was making himself the gadfly of Athens, the Maya in Central America were building an extensive civilization. According to their beliefs, the world had already ended several times. It had come to an end once by fire, once by water. The final apocalypse, the one they predicted for our time, would be brought about by . . . movement.

Maybe the so-called contemporary indifference to poetry is nothing more than dread, dread that poetry is so penetrated by silence.

Because I am not silent the poems are bad. George Oppen.

Since some genes mutate at regular rates, the average number of genetic differences between species in two orders serves as a clock, showing when these animals shared a common ancestor. The common mammalian ancestor can be dated, in this way, to one hundred million years ago. This is about twenty million years before the first appearance of mammals in the fossil record.

Lost roads underlie the known roads. Lost roads and silence.
And isn't memory itself a crumpled map of lost roads crisscrossing body and brain? We are not surprised to learn that there are several memory systems: semantic (a kind of long-term memory for concepts), episodic (long-term memory for events), short-term , and implicit , or unconscious memory. Experiences of one's past are constructed by combining bits of information from several levels of knowledge.

And we know emotional and physical states strongly influence what is remembered. And our endocrinal system is clearly involved in our thinking. Wrote poet Paul Valery: At the end of the mind the body; but at the end of the body, the mind.

Unlike lyrical language, with which we were gifted, the language of science has been agreed upon. In a poem, the terms are unique, irreplaceable; they can only be quoted. But the terms for scientific language are written across an equal sign; science is predominately expressed as a language of equivalences, of substitutions. Poetry is perhaps the ultimate challenge to any language of substitution as well as to the newspaper's language of managed reality. For me, it is a primary discourse in which energy is still possible.

Once, the language of science was thought to be characterized by precision and the absence of ambiguity. Faith in the potential of a literal language bolstered assumptions of picture theories of meaning, what Bertrand Russell and Ludvig Wittgenstein were working on together, and these theories reached their peak in the doctrine of logical positivism, the notion that reality might be described through language in a testable way.
But cognition, as the poet John Keats suggested, savoring negative capability, is only the result of mental construction. Nobel physicist Richard Feynman believed in the primacy of doubt as the essence of knowing.

The objective world is not directly accessible but is constructed on the basis of constraints on our perception and on our language. Language, perception, and memory are inextricably interdependent. There is no one real world toward which science proceeds by successive approximations. As the poet William Bronk wrote: And oh, it is always a world and not the world . There is no neutral, objective point of view.

Look where the field of Dickcissels is swirling up into a tornado of wings. Now look down and you might see the swirl of mud created on the bottom of a pond by the withdrawal of an alligator snapping turtle's head. A species traceable to the early Miocene, the alligator snapper is the largest freshwater turtle. In 1937, Hall and Smith cited a specimen weighing 403 pounds caught in the Neosho River in Cherokee City Kansas. When it would strike, its entire upper body lifted off the ground as it lunged forward like a Volkswagen.

Human muscle is packed with strands called mitochondria that create heat in all warm-blooded animals. But mitochondria cannot contract. For this reason, reptiles, which are cold-blooded, have muscles ten times stronger than mammals.

As my friends know well, I have raised from a hatchling a baby alligator snapper. But for the egg tooth and its small size, the young turtle resembles perfectly the adult. It has a reduced shell with a very small, cross-shaped plastron that exposes its underparts. Its head is large, the jaws extremely strong, and the upper beak is hooked. There are paired barbels on the chin and several irregularly shaped laminae at the under edges of the shell. The tail is long, armed above with erect bony scales. Snapping turtles have been known to bite the snouts of horses as they attempted to drink. They are the only animals ever observed to share holes, unmolested, with a bull alligator.

The primitive alligator snapping turtle, little removed from the lost road of the dinosaurs, represents a transitional group in vertebrate evolution, between aquatic fishes and terrestrial birds and mammals. As it lies underwater, it slowly opens and closes its mouth while pulsating its throat. If we added dye to the water in the tank, it would confirm the swirling currents near its mouth. The throat-pulsing increases with the length of the turtle's submersion, until the animal begins gulping water. There has been some speculation that the alligator snapping turtle, Macroclemys temmincki , is capable of pharyngeal respiration. Most of the time, it lies silently below the surface of the water like a cloistered monk, looking up. Because it is omnivorous, because it is open to anything and everything, all roads lead to its mouth. It waits, listening, in silence. Perhaps this is the most basic gesture of the poet.